New Zealand Parrots - Part 1
by Martin Fingland ©
The New Zealand region contains a small but unique group of parrots that through a long period of isolation have developed specialised habits. This group have suffered greatly as a result of pressures brought about by the country's relatively recent human occupation - firstly Polynesians, followed by Europeans. Due to the destruction and modification of habitats and the introduction of predators and competitors, the parrots along with many other endemic New Zealand species, have disappeared from much of their former range. These species are now found in much reduced numbers or survive only as relict colonies in isolated areas such as small, predator-free islands.
Few articles have been written concerning N.Z. parrots in Parrot Society of Australia News in the past, it therefore appears timely to relate the present situation, with the aim to increase awareness and appreciation for what are some of the most distinctive, specialised and, sadly, rarest parrots in the world.
There are six native New Zealand parrot species, these being the Kakapo, Kea, Kaka, Antipodes Island Parakeet, Red-crowned Kakariki and Yellow-crowned Kakariki. The Kakariki species involve six N.Z. sub-species and a further four sub-species found outside the region, of which two are extinct. As there are only a few species, each one will be dealt with separately.
Kea - Nestor notabilis
Kakapo - Strigops habroptilus
Without doubt, the Kakapo is the most unusual parrot in the world and now one of the rarest. It ranks as being one of the most ancient and specialised parrot species. Unfortunately these same attributes have contributed to its inability to adapt to the multitude of environmental pressures brought on by European settlement. Kakapo were once wide-ranging over both main islands, but had probably begun to decline, on the North Island at least, before the coming of the European settlers in the early 1800s. The effects of large scale forest and scrub clearance along with the quick dispersal of a range of predators such as dogs, cats, rats and mustelids, led to a rapid decline in Kakapo numbers and by the mid-1900s the species had all but vanished. One of the primary reasons the Kakapo succumbed to these pressures so rapidly was due to their almost total lack of flight. They are the only flightless parrot in the world and capable of no more than gliding from branch to ground. Their arboreal activities are confined to clambering about possum-like in the forest, and nesting always takes place at or below ground level, making both parents, eggs and young highly vulnerable to predation.
Other features making the Kakapo unique include the following:
Outside the breeding season, Kakapo lead a solitary existence and wander over territories estimated at as large as 100 hectares, sheltering by day in burrows, logs and under tussocks and emerging nocturnally to feed on plant life such as roots, bulbs, buds and shoots. However, during the breeding season, males begin the courtship ritual which involves construction of an elaborate series of tracks often located on ridge or hill tops. These are connected to 'bowls', cleared depressions forming an arena where the bird, in synchronisation with all male Kakapo, perform their 'booming' courtship calls, repeated many hundreds of times a night and audible for distances of up to 1 kilometre. One male on Stewart Island was recorded as giving nearly 9,000 booms during an 8 hour period!
As the plight of the Kakapo became more fully realised, the then N.Z. Wildlife Service began research into the species and formulated a management plan aimed at ensuring the survival of the few known birds. Up until the late 1970’s, the only known Kakapo population was living in the rugged and remote, sub-alpine Fjordland region. This relict colony consisted of about a dozen individuals, all males; it therefore appeared the species was doomed to extinction.
Expeditions to Stewart Island off the southern coast of the South Island in the late 1970s revealed a previously unknown population of Kakapo with numbers estimated at between 100-200 birds. This discovery breathed new life into the conservation initiative, and within a short period, a total of 22 Kakapo, including 9 females, were removed to the safety of predator-free Little Barrier Island off the east coast of the North Island. This measure was deemed necessary as the increasing presence of feral cats on Stewart Island was taking a heavy toll on the birds, despite predator control techniques carried out by the Wildlife Service. By 1985, primarily due to the effects of predators, the total known Stewart Island Kakapo population had dropped substantially. It was then decided to transfer these remaining birds to nearby, predator-free Codfish Island. 25 Kakapo have now been placed on Codfish Island, unfortunately only 5 of these are females.
The translocated colony on Little Barrier Island have attempted breeding recently although are yet to successfully fully rear a chick. Of the original 22 liberated Kakapo, recent surveys (up until 1989) have only located 14 individuals. Of the recaptured birds, four were females and all were reported to be in good condition with no apparent parasites. The vegetation is very dense and luxuriant on Little Barrier Island, particularly when compared with the lower, temperate vegetation of Stewart Island. Kakapo could be expected to keep better hidden and are less likely to be lured to baits set along tracks at ground level, therefore it is difficult to assess the current status of the Little Barrier Island population, but certainly these most recent surveys are encouraging.
No doubt the question being asked by some aviculturists is why hasn't a captive breeding program been established. In fact five male Kakapo were once kept at the Wildlife Service's Mt. Bruce centre in the early 1960's. They proved to be a 'difficult' species and only one individual survived longer than a year. Expertise and knowledge on Kakapo have increased enormously since then. The Department of Conservation Kakapo Recovery Plan has as one of its stated objectives, to establish a captive facility to maintain Kakapo and develop appropriate management regimes. To date the only attempt in this area has been the 1991 transfer of 4 eggs from Little Barrier Island to Auckland Zoo, unfortunately 2 eggs were infertile, one had a dead embryo and the 4th hatched but died at 5 days of age.
Kakapo must now be regarded as being on the brink of extinction with the current management plan offering their only hope of continued survival.
Kea - Nestor notabilis
The Kea is the only true alpine parrot in the world and its distribution is confined to the alps and high country of the South Island. Its eerie calls echo about the lonely rock canyons and exposed bluffs which are its favoured haunts, often well above the tree-line in snow covered country. The Kea is a large, drab, olive-green coloured parrot similar in overall shape (but heavier) to the Long-billed Corella. Like the Corellas, the Kea has a long slender bill suitable for probing the ground to extract roots, bulbs and shoots. Keas are well adapted to the harsh climate and environment in which they live, being opportunists, feeding on every-thing from vegetable matter to scavenging off carcasses. This latter habit having brought them into conflict with farmers running sheep in the high country and earning the Kea the disputed title of ‘sheep killer’.
This title has had a substantial effect on the Kea's status. It is conceivable that Keas do harass sheep given the fact that they have an incredibly cheeky, inquisitive nature beyond that of any other parrot. However, they are basically scavengers and only likely to pick on sick, injured and dead victims caught in snowdrifts or fallen from bluffs. Sheep farming in the inhospitable sub-alpine country is obviously a high risk venture with large stock losses inevitable, and the damage incurred by an odd 'rogue' Kea has to be regarded as largely inconsequential. Stories of Keas rounding up flocks and gleefully riding them over the cliffs 'en masse' are perpetuated by 'down on their luck' farmers and bear little or no resemblance to the truth. Unfortunately for Keas, though, the 'sheep killer' myth has lingered a long time and being an unprotected species they were shot and trapped indiscriminately by high country farmers. Even after partial protection was afforded the Kea in 1970, the stigma lived on and the result of a century of slaughter is that the Wildlife Service in 1986 estimated the total Kea population to be as low as 2,000!
There has been little monitoring of Kea populations over the years, but it is known that they have disappeared or become scarce in many of their former haunts.
1986 hopefully proved to be the turning point for Keas as they were granted their rightful 'complete' protection, which brought them in line with every other endemic bird species in New Zealand.
The low estimated population figure shocked many concerned New Zealanders who regard the Kea as an integral and conspicuous part of the high country scene. Hopefully the current concern will reach the people who have in the past regarded the Kea as little more than a villain. In a country that has generally shy and secretive native fauna, the Kea stands out as one species that is bold and inquisitive, often encountered by even the most casual visitor to the alps. In fact, where Keas occur along tourist routes such as the Homer Tunnel in Fiordland, they are an attraction in themselves, and it would be a national loss to allow the species to decline further unnecessarily.
There are some 200 Keas in captivity, many are there as a result of being trapped for destructive behaviours around high country farms and ski-resorts, where through curiosity, they have tampered with machinery and equipment. Keas have been bred on a small scale when given sufficient opportunity to do so. They are probably the most active, intelligent, destructive and playful aviary birds, and are therefore prone to behavioural problems and boredom if not well catered for.
Their requirements include spacious, well-though out enclosures, attention to diet and care with the materials used in the aviary construction. It would probably be fair to suggest that Keas are not suited to captivity at all and this is certainly not the solution to their dwindling status.
Research is being carried out into their breeding biology, as being a ground nesting species the Kea is probably vulnerable in a similar way to the Kakapo with regard to nestling predation. The Kea's present range now falls within the boundaries of several large National Parks and it must be hoped that better conservation techniques will secure the future of this high country character in its rightful place and numbers.
Kaka - Nestor meridionalis
The smaller relative to the Kea is the less well known Kaka, a basically sombre, brown coloured parrot almost the size and shape of a Glossy Black Cockatoo with the same heavy, powerful bill ideal for ripping into wood in search of grubs and other invertebrate life. There are two distinct sub-species of Kaka, one inhabiting the North Island, N.m. septentrionalis, and a slightly larger and more colourful form on the South Island, N.m. meridionalis.
Unlike the Kea, the Kaka inhabits forests almost exclusively and is now restricted to the larger tracts of temperate rainforest on both main islands and some of the smaller, off-shore islands. The rainforests were once the predominant vegetation types of N.Z. but large scale clearing over the past 150 years has reduced these forests to only about 30 per cent of their original area. The status of the Kaka has followed the demise of the native forests and numbers have declined consider-ably with their clearing. Most of the lowland 'podocarp' forest containing the best habitat for Kakas has now been felled, and with it the abundance of year-round fruiting plants and giant trees providing invertebrate life, and just as importantly, nesting sites. In many of the remaining upland forests, the so-called management practice of removing 'over-mature' trees has further reduced possible nesting sites and also important food sources. Hence Kaka populations are only abundant in the least modified, larger forest tracts which now lie mostly within National Parks and several island sanctuaries.
Even where they are known to exist, Kakas are often hard to locate due to their somewhat reclusive nature. Inhabiting mainly the canopy level of the forest, they are inactive for a greater proportion of the day and become more active around dusk and dawn. There is also evidence to suggest they are partially nocturnal. Often their raucous call is the only indication of Kaka presence in an area, as small parties keep in contact high in the forest greenery.
Although Kakas nest in tree hollows, their nestlings are still vulnerable to smaller predators such as rats and mustelids, but similarly to the Kea, little is known of the breeding habits of the Kaka in the wild. There are some 50 Kakas in captivity represented in several zoos and parks and breeding success is increasing as expertise is gained. Like the Australian Cockatoos, the Kaka is particularly destructive on wood-work and vegetation and also requires careful attention to diet. The Kaka does not exhibit the same extrovert nature as the Kea in captivity, and has a tendency towards long inactive periods hidden away in hollows or in the shadows.
With clear-felling and logging still continuing through out large parts of N.Z. the downward trend in Kaka numbers is set to continue. Although this is not likely to lead to a short-term threat to the species' existence, it must be hoped that as the population declines the effects of predators do not overcome the Kaka's ability to survive. This has happened to a second Kaka species, N. productus, once found in Norfolk Island; it disappeared by the mid 1800's through pressures brought about by settlement of that island.
© Article under Copyright with the Author, Mr Martin Fingland and cannot be reprinted without written permission.
Want more information on this subject?
See also New Zealand Parrots - Part II by Martin Fingland or see New Zealand's Most Colourful Parrot (South Island Kaka) by Dawn Stewart.
Another very interesting (external) site is The Fabulous Kakapo site dedicated entirely to the New Zealand Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus.
© 1997 Parrot Society of Australia Inc